Summary of Tribunal Recommendations

Four distinguished women served as judges on the Tribunal, hearing the grandmothers’ and experts’ testimonies and issuing their decisions: Theo Sowa, Chief Executive Officer of the African Women’s Development Fund; Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond, British Columbia’s Representative for Children and Youth; Joy Phumaphi, Executive Secretary of the African Leaders Malaria Alliance, and Gloria Steinem, renowned feminist author and activist.

Income Security

The grandmothers are suffering from an extreme depletion of their resources, in every sense—economic, emotional, physical and spiritual—because of the challenges they face in the struggle to support families devastated by HIV and AIDS. After the death of so many parents, the grandmothers stepped in to care for the orphaned children regardless of what the limits of their own personal strength and resources might be. They have been emptying their small savings, begging, farming small plots of land while holding off property grabbers, studying new skills to earn bits of income, exhausting themselves with piece work and day labour, and loaning any money they have to each other through table banking. Local grassroots NGOs have done whatever they can, whenever they can, with their limited funds, providing bedding and foodstuffs, seeds and fertilizer, repairing homes, and paying for school fees, uniforms and books. It’s rarely enough. These families are living precarious lives, under the constant threat of extreme poverty. One bad financial turn can lead to hunger, the end of the children’s schooling, inability to access HIV treatment, or homelessness.

Grandmothers’ human rights are being doubly violated. First, because they themselves are not protected as they should be from extreme poverty, hunger and homelessness. But second, and more insidiously, because they have been left to meet the burden of the State’s proper responsibilities for the children and vulnerable people in their communities though their own unpaid labour.

To protect grandmothers’ right to income security, the judges have recommended:

  • Granting pensions or cash transfers to grandmothers, at a level that is sufficient to cover both their needs and the needs of the children in their care
  • Expanding the economic opportunities available to grandmothers
  • Compensating grandmothers for their work as community caregivers
  • Eliminating school fees, and all ancillary costs, for primary and secondary schooling

Housing, Land, and Property

Having well-built, secure shelter, with land nearby that can be farmed for crops to eat and for sale, is what has made it possible for so many grandmothers to support themselves and their grandchildren. But the pandemic has brought a crisis of mass eviction into grandmothers’ lives. In cultures where men are the traditional owners of land and property, grandmothers become dangerously vulnerable when their husbands die due to AIDS, or when they are faced with divorce or abandonment. The stories that Immaculate and Magret have shared with us, about their relatives’ campaigns to grab their land and property, are not unique. They have been repeated in community after community, across the countries of sub-Saharan Africa, and reflect a pernicious intersection of HIV and discrimination against women.

The challenge that grandmothers are confronting is not simply that they have no legal rights—often it is that these rights are not being recognized and enforced in their communities. Many grandmothers are not able to afford the high cost of bringing a legal claim. They also face justice systems that favour people with money, all the while enduring harassment from their in-laws and struggling with the day-to-day burden of the disease and care for their grandchildren. Many are overwhelmed by this many-sided assault, and give up. But not all. As the grandmothers have told us in their testimony, support from grassroots NGOs, women’s lawyers’ associations, legal aid, responsive police officers and local officials, and gender sensitive land tribunals—especially those that include grandmothers as decision makers—can make a tremendous difference.

To protect grandmothers’ rights to housing, land and property, the judges have recommended:

  • Reforming national constitutions, laws, and policies
  • Making courts, policing, and legal aid more accessible and responsive to grandmothers’ claims
  • Supporting customary and religious legal systems to eliminate discriminatory practices
  • Ensuring that local administrations respect grandmothers’ equal rights in the division of marital property and inheritance
  • Returning all land, housing and property that has been taken illegally
  • Providing housing to grandmothers who have been left homeless


In recent years there has been a dramatic increase in the number of people receiving life-extending, lifesaving antiretroviral (ARV) treatment for HIV and AIDS. Unfortunately, grandmothers are not the main beneficiaries of this change, and they continue to suffer from very limited access to healthcare. Sex-based and age-based discrimination continue to marginalize them within healthcare programmes. The obstacles and challenges they face are mainly ignored—their isolation, lack of information about the disease, inability to travel long distances, the high costs of drugs, and vulnerability to violence. As the global community is poised to intensify its efforts to deliver treatment for HIV and AIDS, we must insist on improved treatment for grandmothers as a priority.

To protect grandmothers’ right to health, the judges have recommended:

  • Including grandmothers as a target population in national plans to scale up access to HIV and AIDS treatment
  • Developing community level programmes to address the challenges older women face in accessing treatment
  • Engaging grandmothers in the design and deliver of community-based care
  • Eliminating all out-of-pocket costs for HIV and AIDS testing and treatment Prohibiting discrimination against people living with HIV and AIDS, and undertaking anti-stigma campaigns with strong support from prominent local and national leaders

Violence Against Women

Women living with HIV are more vulnerable to violence. According to a recent Zimbabwean study, the rates of reported sexual or physical violence are 20% higher among women living with HIV than other women. That’s often because women are more likely than men to be blamed for bringing HIV into the family, and are much more likely to be battered as a result. Husbands become aggressive and violent towards the HIV positive wives they want to drive from their homes, and the stigma of HIV and age make older women less willing to report the violence, especially sexual violence, that has been done to them. Perhaps hardest for a grandmother caring for AIDS orphans is reporting the violent behaviour of one of her troubled and traumatized grandchildren.

Poverty plays a role as well. Women who must travel long distances to find work, sell their goods, or reach hospitals and clinics for treatment are exposed to attack. Grandmothers who are desperate for money to support their families can be forced into dangerous working environments, such as truck stops, illicit brewing, and prostitution. Many grandmothers living in urban areas suffer from extreme isolation. The social networks of kin and community that still exist in rural areas have virtually disappeared in the cities, leaving them vulnerable and defenseless. Housing that is insecure and in bad shape encourages local men to enter uninvited, and take what they want by force. Relatives will destroy crops and property, and physically attack grandmothers and their family members, in attempts to scare them off their land.

To protect grandmothers’ right to live lives free of violence, the judges have recommended:

  • Enacting and enforcing laws to prohibit domestic violence, marital rape, and sexual violence
  • Making courts, policing, and legal aid more accessible and responsive to grandmothers’ claims
  • Strengthening community-level mechanisms to prevent, investigate, and punish acts of violence
  • Eliminating harmful traditional practices, such as wife inheritance
  • Raising awareness at the community level about women’s right to be free from violence

Grandmothers’ Leadership

The grandmothers’ testimonies revealed just how much they have been able to accomplish for their families and communities—drawing only on their own hearts and spirits, and the support of those grassroots NGOs who understand the importance of their role. Grandmothers are feeding whole neighbourhoods of children, and monitoring their health and well-being. Grandmothers are advocating for an end to discrimination and violence, encouraging women to claim their rights, and helping them get protection and redress. Grandmothers are helping to remove the stigma and ignorance that hold people back from treatment and testing, and giving the day-to-day support that keeps people in treatment. Grandmothers are advising on the boards of NGOs, and they are becoming part of local governance. Perhaps most significantly, grandmothers are joining together, forming mutual support groups and creating their own organizations to help advance their work. In short, grandmothers are showing the most inspirational type of leadership—and they deserve support to make that leadership count fully.

To advance grandmothers’ leadership, the judges have recommended:

  • Including grandmothers in all national and local bodies that make HIV and AIDS related decisions
  • Increasing grandmothers’ representation in community-level bodies that make decisions on issues that affect them, such as local land committees
  • Strengthening the community-based organizations that are facilitating grandmothers’ advocacy and organizing

Financing for Grandmothers’ Rights

Last year, UNAIDS estimated the amount of money being spent on HIV and AIDS related initiatives that target women. The first shock: only 85 of the 127 countries who prepared progress reports on their HIV/ AIDS spending indicated that any money was being allocated to programmes that specifically target women. The second, even greater shock is the utterly trivial scale of this funding: only US $288 million was reported worldwide last year for women-specific interventions. Of that sum only US$ 20 million was spent on HIV related anti-violence interventions and other programming that directly addresses women’s concerns.

The funding picture is just as troubling when it comes to the care and support work of local, grassroots NGOs. When we hear about funding for AIDS in Africa, the focus has always been on the provision of drugs. Of course, this is desperately important; only 50% of those who need antiretroviral drugs are receiving them, and only 25-29% of the children who need pediatric ARVs can access them. But drugs don’t deliver themselves, and drugs alone won’t heal the damage done by the pandemic. Much more support is needed for the community-based organizations that have become the backbone of the healthcare response to HIV and AIDS on the ground.

To improve the financing for grandmothers’ rights, the judges have recommended:

  • Allocating resources to implement all of the above measures
  • Increasing the funding available to community-based organizations
  • Establishing a multi-donor programme for sub-Saharan Africa, to fund cash transfers for grandmothers